Previously: Aleph stoops to pick up the small wooden disk, holding it gingerly between thumb and forefinger.
“This is the insignia of the seventh phalanx of Emberfrost,” he says.
The other Warforged nods towards Aleph’s shield, with its thirteen circular grooves. “I believe that its rightful place is with you.”
Aleph unslings his shield from his back and presses the insignia into one of the empty spaces. It glows briefly and sets in place. [Chapter 11: Memories of Emberfrost]
“…Then I wrapped my chains around the third guard drake, broke its neck, and climbed the cage wall to freedom,” Aleph concludes. They are still standing in the squashed remains of the violet fungi, a wreck of flattened stalks, mashed vegetation, and drifting clouds of purple spores. A smattering of applause breaks out from the rest of the party.
“That’s more or less what I did when I escaped, too,” Cuthbert says nonchalantly.
“That was a great story, Aleph!” Nubbins enthuses. “So many twists and turns! I hope you get captured again soon.”
“Nubbins!” Gerard shoots the gnome a scandalised look, but Cyd laughs.
“Sorry, Nubs, but you’re going to have to settle for fictional jailbreaks from here on in,” she says. “Now…” She gives an exaggerated bow and turns, sweeping her hand towards the exit. “Shall we commence getting the hell out of here?”
There’s a chorus of hearty agreement. But Aleph shakes his head. “I must detain us a while longer. Mondath took my weapons and—and my shield.”
Cyd’s face falls. “Your magic Emberfrost shield? Oh no!”
“I believe that it may still be within these caves,” the Warforged resumes. “I feel its presence. It is… close by. If you do not feel that we have time to retrieve it, then I will understand, but if there is any chance—”
“There’s another reason for pressing on, too.” Cuthbert speaks up unexpectedly. The others all turn to look at him.
“There were always a lot of kobolds around when I was working in these caves as a prisoner,” he continues. “They seemed to be guarding something: there were rooms we weren’t allowed to enter, particularly further back in the caves. I think the cultists are keeping something in here. Something secret. And valuable.”
Aleph’s eyes flare at this revelation, while Cyd’s light up at the word ‘valuable’.
“Then we should keep going,” Gerard says firmly. “Though if there is still something of value in these caves, we must assume that the cultists have left a sizeable force to guard it. The men at the entrance can only have been the tip of the iceberg: we shouldn’t push our luck too far.”
“Luck?” Cyd snorts. “We haven’t had any yet. It’s been nothing but flesh-eating mushrooms since we got here. I’d say we’re past due for a break.”
She turns to continue into the cavern—and lets out a shout of surprise and horror. There’s a beholder inches from her face, its grey-green skin waxy. It seems to have floated up to the party soundlessly from somewhere deeper within the caves. Cyd doesn’t give herself time to think. Her mind blank from terror, she grabs reflexively for her dagger and plunges it into the thing’s wide and staring central eye.
The beholder explodes in a burst of yellow dust. Cyd is covered in the fine, pollen-like powder, which seems to instantly insinuate itself between the folds of her cloak, into her mouth and up her nose. She coughs and splutters, drawing in a huge breath that only causes her to inhale more of the stuff. It’s in her eyes, too: she shuts them hastily, fumbling for her waterskin to wash them out.
It’s Aleph’s voice. She hears his heavy footsteps move her way, then stop abruptly.
“Don’t touch her!” Nubbins calls out, his voice high.
Cyd feels fear thrill through her again. “Why shouldn’t he, Nubs?” she mumbles, spitting out gritty dust as she speaks.
“Because you might be contagious,” Nubbins replies. “That was a gas spore. They look like beholders, but they’re really mushrooms that are pretending. They’re very poisonous. The myconids told me about them,” he adds, a little defensively, in response to the party’s looks of stunned disbelief. “I do pay attention sometimes, you know.”
Cyd has managed to rinse the dust from her eyes now. She edges away from the rest of the group, who are watching her apprehensively.
“I have no spiritual energy left for a cleansing spell,” Aleph rumbles. “Perhaps we should turn back and—”
“No. I feel fine,” the rogue replies. “I’ll keep my distance, though. Just in case.”
Actually, now that she thinks about it, does she feel fine? Cyd concentrates. She’s a little light-headed, but that could just be from the shock of meeting an exploding beholder. She shakes her head, trying to dislodge the feeling, and takes a few purposeful steps forward. She’s not about to stop Alf from getting his shield back just because she snorted some funny spores.
The passage narrows ahead, then widens into a huge cavern. The party move more carefully after Cyd’s encounter with the gas spore. Nubbins in particular is on high alert, dividing his attention between scanning the darkness around him for further dangers and darting anxious glances at the back of Cyd’s head. He has to admit that the rogue looks fine, slinking through the shadows with her usual agility. Every now and then, though, she coughs—a wet, wracking cough that makes Nubbins’ shoulders tense with worry.
He’s not the only one.
“Could you keep it down?” Cuthbert hisses, the fifth time this happens. “You’re going to get us all killed.”
Cyd opens her mouth to reply—and launches into another fit of hacking, wheezing coughs. The sound echoes through the cavernous space.
High above them, in the darkness at the top of the cave, something rustles.
“Did—did anyone else hear that?” Nubbins whispers.
The others are too busy arguing to hear him.
“Cydonie is unwell. These high-pressure expulsions of air and bodily fluids are not her fault,” Aleph is saying.
“That’s not the point,” Cuthbert rejoins. “If she can’t get a handle on it, she’ll bring the guards down on us!”
“Um, guys?” Nubbins quavers. The ceiling of the cave is covered in a solid mass of moving forms. As the voices of his companions rise in pitch and volume, the mass erupts into what looks to Nubbins like ten thousand black shards. The winged creatures throng through the cave, filling the air. Darting amongst them, like flesh-coloured fish in a dark sea, several paler shapes begin to converge on the party.
“STIRGES!” Nubbins shrieks. He hates stirges. They used to get into his dormitory at the Enchanters’ College sometimes—one moment you’d be sleeping peacefully, and the next you’d jolt awake with a proboscis the size of a finger stuck in your neck and that horrible feeling of being drained. Nubbins screams again as one of the creatures swoops down on him, its clawed feet scrabbling for purchase on his hat. He sweeps the hat from his head and stamps on it, and the stirge bursts like a swollen tick. Two more immediately take its place, attaching themselves to the gnome’s head and neck.
All around Nubbins, the rest of the party are beating their hands in the air and trying to shield their faces from the bloodsucking beasts, which divebomb them with the unerring accuracy of mosquitos. Flashes of golden fire illuminate the cavern as Gerard shoots two of them down with bolts of radiant energy. Beside him, Aleph swings his chains around his head, knocking several out of the air.
Meanwhile, the bats swarm around them, flying into everyone’s faces and making it nearly impossible to see. And then a new sound joins the frantic flap of wings, the whine of the stirges, and Nubbins’ panicked screams—the high-pitched yip of kobolds.
“What—did—I—tell—you?” Cuthbert pants, flailing his hands around his head as he tries to keep a trio of bloodsuckers from landing on him. Despite how undignified this looks, he still manages to sound smug.
The kobolds emerge from the swarm of bats. There are twelve of them, wielding spears and slingshots. The one silver lining to their appearance is that some of the stirges batten onto them instead. The kobolds growl, slashing at the tiny attackers with their claws. Aleph, whom the bloodsucking creatures have largely ignored, charges towards this new threat, wielding his broken chains like whips.
Behind him, Nubbins has all but disappeared under a horde of the fleshy, pink beasts. His shouts grow muffled for a second, then intensify.
“Leave. Me. ALONE!” he yells, dragging a shard of sea glass out from the pouch at his belt and hurling it into the air. The glass glows for an instant, then breaks apart into a whirling storm of daggers. The stirges are ripped to shreds.
White-faced, the gnome runs through the resulting shower of viscera to join Aleph. Faint though he is from loss of blood, he swings his ice axe at the nearest kobold in fervent relief, glad to have an enemy that isn’t trying to eat him from the inside out.
As stirges and bats alike blunder into Nubbins’ dagger spell, the party turn their attention to the kobolds. The reptilian creatures have surrounded Aleph and are pelting him with a barrage of stones.
“HEY!” Cyd shouts. “Get away from him!”
She ruins the effect of this challenge somewhat by following it up with another coughing fit, but she follows that up with three arrows, each of which finds its mark in a kobold’s head.
At this, the last two kobolds drop their weapons and fall to their knees.
Once the stirges are dead, the bats become no more than a nuisance. While they wait for the last of them to flutter back up to their roosts at the top of the cave, the party truss up the two surviving kobolds with the rope they have left.
“Talk,” Aleph growls, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb the newly restored peace. “Now.”
The prisoners nod vigorously. “We have much useful information,” one yips.
“Yes,” his companion replies. “We know about many traps. Many dangers. We can tell you how to get through the caves safely.”
Cuthbert raises an eyebrow. “Let’s hear it, then.”
The speaker jerks his head upwards. “There are blood-suckers on the ceiling.”
“We’re aware: our friend here is still wearing bits of them.” Cuthbert gestures towards the blood-soaked Nubbins, who is shaking. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
“You must tread carefully in the food cavern,” the first kobold continues, unperturbed. “There are false beholders and lashing mushrooms guarding the crop.”
“Met them already,” Cyd winces. “Go on.”
“The stairs up are trapped. They turn into a slide that—”
“Yes, we know!” Gerard’s cheeks flush pink at the memory. “Can you tell us anything about a trap we haven’t already set off?”
The second kobold opens his mouth. Then he shuts it again.
“If only you had met us before,” the other volunteers, shaking his head. “You would have been so much safer.”
“Be that as it may,” Aleph says, with visible self-restraint, “there is nothing we can do about it now. Where are Mondath and Cyanwrath? What are they guarding?”
At this, both kobolds flinch. “The purple-robes will kill us if we lead you to the eggs,” the first yelps.
For the first time since initiating this interrogation, Aleph feels he may have stumbled upon something useful.
He leans forward. “What eggs?”
An explosion of wrenching coughs behind him distracts his attention.
“Um… guys?” Cyd’s voice is raspy and weak. “I don’t—I don’t…”
Alarmed, Aleph spins around. Cyd is staring at him with wide, frightened eyes. Eyes that are shot through with veins of yellow.
New reader? Read the first chapter here!
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-Lou & Cam
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